Chapter 1: Near Misses and Absolute Hits
It’s a Tuesday when Charles and Erik tell them they’re going to be springing a mutant from the Bronx Psychiatric Center. Charles caught a glimpse of her mind by accident (he usually avoids the psych wards, and hospitals in general, because that much fear and distress leaves his head aching). Hank has tracked her through the system, and says that they’re moving here from the Intensive Treatment and Stabilization Unit (wards 5 and 7) to the Intensive Diagnostic and Treatment Unit, because she’s not crazy and they can’t figure out what to make of what she claims to know. Alex hates Tuesdays. And he hates crazy people. Alex remembers what prison was like, and walking into a hospital he finds it smells of the same kind of desperation. He’s glad he’s not Hank, he’s glad he doesn’t know these things for sure. But he hates the feeling of it all the same.
Charles smooths everything over, partially with his talents, partially with his natural charm, and partially with a measure of applied “I know what’s going on and I’m qualified to deal with it so why don’t you just let me” ... Alex isn’t quite sure how to describe that particular aura his boss possesses, but it’s there. Alex mostly hangs back while they’re actually retrieving her. He’s not much help in these cases. He’s too gruff and too angry to really help anyone delicate. He drives, which gives him an excuse not to say anything on the way back to their base in Westchester. Charles felt that that environment would be more conducive to helping this woman feel relaxed and safe, than the base in the City, which is industrial and harsh, and underground. Alex doesn’t like to think too much about it, but the mansion in Westchester sometimes feels like it’s coated in the same kind of desperation as the hospitals and the prisons. Except that this was some kind of hell that Charles Xavier was born into, and that none of them dare ask about.
Charles bundles the girl into the kitchen where Erik is waiting with enough tea for everyone on the team. Alex never thought he’d be a tea person, but when your boss is an English ex-pat, and his boyfriend can make every brewed beverage under the sun, but only ever acquiesces to the requests of said boss... You get used to it. The girl is whimpering, at least she stopped clutching her head and crying the way she had been on the drive all the way through the city. Charles makes soothing, shushing noises at her and asks her questions in his calmest voice. She clutches at his hands and starts crying again.
“Everyone, I’m going to have to ask you to leave, your presence is disrupting her psychic abilities and making it more painful for her,” he’s looking at all of them, and his gaze becomes a little more pointed when it comes to rest on Erik, who, as always, is loathe to leave Charles on his own with anyone new.
It’s three days before they’re allowed to see her again. Charles spends long hours helping her come to terms with and control her gifts. None of them are really privy to what those gifts are; Charles refuses to tell them, at her request. They imagine that Erik might know, because almost anything that Charles knows Erik does. Alex sort of hates not knowing, because it leaves him feeling vulnerable (and he’s tired of it, every time he feels like he’s come to a place where it’ll stop feeling that way... Something happens to wrench the feeling away from him) but he knows what it’s like to feel dangerous, and the desire to protect yourself from others because of who you are. He doesn’t know if they should be afraid of her, or if she’s afraid they’ll try and use her, but he gets that sometimes, you want to keep your secrets.
She joins them at lunch. Charles smiles at her and introduces her to the table, telling them this is her last day with them. She’s tall, with dark hair, and now that she isn’t crying Alex can see that her big, dark eyes are sad, despite the fact that she’s smiling. She looks at each of them in turn, and something in her gaze pierces through each of them. Alex doesn’t know what it is she sees, but the haunted look in her eyes makes him shiver. But she keeps smiling through lunch and talks to with them, so he supposes that it can’t be that bad (he knows her eyes are going to haunt him, maybe forever).
The team goes together to see her off, because mutants need to stick together. Despite the fact that Charles was the one that helped her get the most balance, they’re working together to help people help themselves. “Mutant and proud” is how Raven says it. It’s a rallying cry, a statement of solidarity. They want her to know that should she get in trouble, should the rest of the world be ready to reject her, Charles Xavier and his X-Men are here. And they’ll come to the rescue of any mutant that needs it. Except, she doesn’t just smile and say her goodbyes, the way people usually do. She stands in front of them, strong and sad, and speaks to them in a voice that tells them they have to listen.
“I can’t do anything about what I see. Not really. Trying to warn people never works, because it’s not my place to save people. And mistakes will always happen. Erik Lensherr, be careful. Think very carefully about what is most important to you, lest you hurt those you love. You know what is most important, please remember it. Hank, I cannot tell you anything to change what is going to happen. I just wish you knew... Alex, I’m so sorry. Do not let the past get in the way of the future, but I wish you didn’t have to go through any of this. Raven, sometimes we have to wait for what’s right to come to pass. Don’t let your impatience get the best you. Sean, don’t let your doubts undermine you. Angel, be careful what you wish for. Some things can only be won with time and anything else will leave you bitter. Thank you so much, all of you, for helping me. Thank you.”
And with that, she walked away. Sean, Angel and Hank started talking amongst themselves, wondering what she meant. Raven looked in askance to Charles and Erik frowned, probably thinking about what she’d said to them. Alex couldn’t quite get rid of the chills and dread that she’d left behind. Nothing good could come out of a gaze like hers. He walked back inside.
Chapter 2: The right kind of Doctor
Hank bonds with a mutant they stop from being arrested for squatting. We learn a little about Hank's past.
Title comes from Torchwood episode "End of Days" (wherein terrible things happen).
The thing is, Hank remembers, quite clearly, what things were like before some of the mutant rights laws had passed. He still carries with him his mother’s quiet anxiety and his father’s stoicism, the hushed whispers at the family Thanksgiving’s, and the way his grandmother wouldn’t talk to him. But most of all, he remembers going to the beach and standing in the sand in his sneakers, desperately wanting to splash and play in the water, to dig his toes into the sand, but not being able to. He remembers the doctor’s note that excused him from swimming lessons during school, sitting in the big echoing room while his classmates learned diving and the backstroke, staring at the book on his lap, his eyes blurring at the unfairness of it all.
He remembers his mother’s worried questions to the doctor as he approached puberty, always in hushed tones, whose ultimate point was, “Will it get worse?”
He remembers what it is to be a freak.
They find her and she’s covered in scales. She’s beautiful, the scales catching the light; iridescent. She’s strong, and Hank thinks that if they were to run together, she’d probably be able to keep pace with him. She’s bald and her eyes are huge and green. She’s been squatting in the apartment for 3 weeks now, and the landlord finally caught on. He walked in to see what some noise was about, and interrupted her in the middle of the can of soup she’d been eating. He’d called the police, but the X-Men had intervened.
They found her sitting there, in the living room, waiting for them to walk in the door. She’d followed them with her eyes, but not said a word. At the sight of her, Raven had let out a small, “Oh,” and her form had shuddered and she stood there blue, instead of blonde. Angel had let her wings open up. And they’d stood there for a bit.
Eventually Charles had started going through his normal, “We’re here to help, please tell us what we can do,” routine. (Hank knows the last part is a courtesy. Most mutants are used to being told where to go and what to do, because they’re freaks and can’t be allowed to roam free, and Charles wants to help them feel like this is their chance to take their lives back, but in the end, he can and will re-arrange your life as he sees fit, because, and Hank has yet to see evidence to the contrary, Charles knows best.) Hank had stood back and watched as they milled about, Raven going close and offering a few words of sympathy.
It wasn’t until they got back to the mansion that it was Hank’s turn to step in. Charles sent her down to the lab, wrapped in a blanket, to have some blood work done, and for Hank to look her over and make sure she’s was physically fit. Hank went through his physician routine, except without his usual quiet questions. Eventually the girl spoke, “They’re not right. Looking like this, it’s not a gift. It’s a curse. Damn what other advantages it gives me.” Her voice was deeper than he’d expected, with a sort of rasping huskiness to it that he found incredibly pleasant. “’Mutant and proud,’ that’s what the blue one told me. Proud of what? The fact that I can’t leave the house without causing a riot?” Her voice dripped with poison bitterness. “My own mother won’t talk to me, because of this.” She clutched the blanket around her shoulders with one hand and gestured to herself with the other. “Raven met Charles at a young age,” Hank began with caution, “She’d run away from home, but in meeting him found a kindred spirit. They had a tough time for a while, when he developed a protective streak that demanded that she hide her true form in public, because he didn’t want her getting hurt. But they eventually worked through it, and Erik, I think you met him when you got here? Did he make you tea? That’s sort of his, well, job. When it’s not... Taking care of the Professor. He really drives home the idea of being proud of who we are. And I think that makes them forget. How hard it can be. Because ultimately, if she feels unsafe, Raven can hide. Even I can hide. And that’s grating, but it’s nothing like being shoved out there for everyone to see, to judge, to ...” he trailed off. Nothing good came of wandering down that road.
(Hank is 7 the first time it happens. It’s July. It’s raining out. The kids on his block have all gone outside to play barefoot in the rain. He pulls off his shoes and his socks and dashes through the front door, off the porch and over to where they’re frolicking in rivers made by the rain rolling down the street. Everyone is laughing. And then suddenly they aren’t. Mary Louise from two houses over starts to cry. She’s looking at his feet. Jacob from across the street asks him if he’s a monster. Lester tells him that his dad says that people like him should be put down. Sarah says it’s not natural. They surround him asking him questions he doesn’t have answers to, telling him things he doesn’t really understand and doesn’t want to hear, doesn’t want to know. He turns around and runs away. He runs back to the house, bounds up the steps (taking them two at a time, despite the fact that he shouldn’t be able to), through the front door and up the stairs to where his mother is lying on his parents bed, reading a mystery novel. He rushes to her and buries his face in her stomach, his arms wrapping around her waist. She runs her fingers through his hair, and asks him what’s wrong. She must catch sight of his muddy feet because suddenly her hand stops and she goes quiet. Suddenly all Hank can hear are his own hitching breaths and he realizes he’s crying. She murmurs his name and puts her arms around him, cradling him close. That night as he lies in bed, he hears his parents arguing in the kitchen. Their words are indistinct through the closed door, but he knows it’s about him. His mother holds her head up high, but he knows the poison looks, and snide remarks, the implicit critique of her genetic material grate on her. But she never lets go of his hand when they go out. He’s grateful that she never stops loving him.
He’s 16 when a girl first tries to kiss him. She does it after asking him to a football game. They’re sitting in the bleachers. He’s holding her hand. Two weeks later, she invites him over, and keeps pestering him to take his shoes off, because her mother doesn’t like people wearing them in the house. He resists. But she’s beautiful. He asks her if she’s sure she’ll still like him. She makes a joke about smelly feet not being the end of the world. He takes his shoes off, and his socks and stretches out his toes. She stares at them for a long and terrible moment. And then she says quietly, that she thinks maybe he should go. He doesn’t say anything, just picks up his socks and shoes and runs. She doesn’t speak to him again. She doesn’t tell anyone else, either, and for that he’s grateful.
In college, there was the boy who liked his feet. But he didn’t really seem to like anything else about Hank. The less said about that, the better. Hank still remembers the feel of the boy’s lips, his tongue, his mouth, caressing his feet, laving them with attention, the things he’s ask Hank to do with them. He hated being forced to remember, every time they were together, that this is all he was.)
“You say you can hide, too. What do you hide? You look fine to me,” her voice, though soft, carried with it the dull sound of accusation. Hank smiled, except he could feel it fall awkward and wrong across his face. He bent down and unlaced his shoes, and took them and his socks off. He repeated the now familiar motion of stretching out his toes, relief lancing through him at the feeling, despite the dull feeling of learned disgust and low throb of frustration that this was somehow enough to make him into some kind of freak. His skin was a normal human shade, his hair was sparse an appropriately colored for a human, he did not see why the shape of his feet was enough to undo the rest of his humanity.
"Oh," she said. Her expression seemed caught somewhere between pity and bitterness.
"I know, it's nothing bad as all that," he could hear the sad sound of self-deprecation in his laughter, "It's even pretty easy to get by. So long as I don't go to the beach." And it's another bitter reminder of the things he wishes he could have. He remembers one summer when he was about ten years old, when his parents rented a beach house on a private beach and the joy of being able to run and play, and feel the sand between his toes. He hasn't felt it since and the memory is a constant ache.
She softens a little bit in response.
"Let me look you over," he busies himself getting open a new file, and readying his equipment. She moves over to the examination table and hops up, in one smooth movement, with an elegance and grace that not even Hank’s extra strength gives him. She watches him with her big green eyes and he buries his eyes in the file to be able to keep thinking.
“You’re in perfect health. Although it seems you could do with a little more vitamin K, since this is uncommon in adults, I’ll have to do a little more blood work to see what’s going on...” Hank paused for a moment, his head still bent over the medical file, his pen poised right above the paper. He bit his lip, and ran his tongue over it before continuing, his voice coming out in a whisper, “I’ve been doing something without the others’ knowledge.”
She cocked her head at him, and he marveled at the way her scales caught the light and almost didn’t continue. But he also recalled the sound of her voice, speaking about her mother and the own dull ache of his own hurt.
“I’ve been collecting and analyzing blood work, and DNA strands, and I’ve made use of data gathered from Raven’s DNA in particular,” his words spilled out fast, but clear, the feeling that if he lingered on them too long the guilt in them would manifest in physical form, “trying to find a way to change physical appearance, and leave whatever invisible benefits of a set of mutations alone.” He finally looked up at her. The green eyes boring into him gave him strength to continue. “It’s nowhere near ready, but I can probably find more time to work on it, to try and prepare it, if you’re interested.”
He swallowed, his throat felt dry. She leaned forward, “You would do this, for me?”
“I mean,” he swallowed and tried again, “I feel like I’ve come to a place where I’m used to my feet. I...” he trailed off, thinking of Alex’s occasional mean comments, and the relief of taking off his shoes when he was alone in his room, “It’s not perfect, but it’s okay. But I remember––I remember what it’s like. And if you could see your mother again, and talk to her. Be with her again. If I could help with that? I would do anything.” It made his heart twist. Too many times had the team come into a home with a mutant child to find it ignored or abused for something it had no control over. Sometimes he felt like he didn’t need to go looking at people’s blood or their DNA to see if they were a mutant, all he’d need to do was look in their eyes, and look for the saddness of isolation that all mutants seem to possess.
“Hank,” her voice cut through his musings, it had gone huskier than before and when he looked up at her face, he saw her eyes were full of tears. “Hank,” she choked up and her voice broke off, “You have no idea how much that would mean to me.”
He smiled at her.
“If it works. Take a walk on the beach for me... With your shoes off?”
She smiled back, a watery, hopeful thing.
Chapter 3: Watch me Beat Death
Hank works on a secret project in his lab and emails back and forth with Sarah, the golden-scaled mutant from the rescue mission.
Title comes from the Torchwood episode "Dead Man Walking"
It’s three months. Three months of hard work, late at night. Three months of coming up with reasons to take blood from Raven and trying to keep secrets from Charles. Three months of email exchanges with Sarah.
Every breakthrough, every day of mundane, fruitless research was relayed to her in detail. She didn’t understand much of the technical aspects, so he started giving the background research and filling in the knowledge, which lead to telling stories of his time at Harvard. They started talking like people, telling each other about themselves in and around the genetic research. While she chafed at being enclosed in the Massachusetts Academy with Ms. Frost, she was finding people to talk with and flourishing under the social opportunities. Hank could only imagine how lovely she would look with a smile on her face and the sun glinting off her golden scales. Until finally, on an ordinary Wednesday on a damp day in March, he sent a message with only two words:
Hank waits until that Saturday off. He shows up later than he does on a work day, dressed in sweats, with his gym bag (he was too nervous to actually work out). He wandered in and answered Erik’s questioning glare with a mumbled “science is fun” and a half-baked excuse about a time sensitive project. He is lucky there is no one there to call his bullshit.
He heads down into the lab.
On Monday, she receives an email. It reads: